The bittern – a type of heron wiped out in Britain at the turn of the 20th century – is bouncing back to full recovery, the RSPB said yesterday.
Scientists count bitterns by listening for the male’s foghorn-like booming song. So far in 2015 more than 150 males have been recorded in England and Wales, making it the best year for the bird since early in the 19th century.
And numbers are particularly strong in Somerset where the marshy, reed-covered ground of the Levels makes an ideal environment for the bird, which feeds on aquatic life and prefers to stay hidden in sizeable tracts of reedbed. So far 40 booming males have been recorded in Somerset alone.
The birds have been breeding at Ham Wall on the Levels, which was created from old peat workings from 1995 and has been restored by the RSPB. Other Somerset strongholds are at Shapwick Heath, a project undertaken by Natural England and Westhay Moor, belonging to Somerset Wildlife Trust. The bird’s boom has been recorded at the sites regularly from 2008 – the year bitterns first nested again in the Avalon Marshes, near Glastonbury. Other strongholds are Lakenheath, in Suffolk and Ouse Fen, in Cambridgeshire.
Bittern numbers peaked at around 80 booming males in the 1950s, but had declined to only 11 booming males in England in 1997. Concern over a second UK extinction led to a concerted conservation program which is driving the current recovery. The bittern was absent as a breeding bird between the 1870s and 1911.
Simon Wotton, an RSPB conservation scientist said: “In the late 1990s, the bittern was heading towards a second extinction in the UK, largely because its preferred habitat – wet reedbed – was drying out and required intensive management, restoration and habitat recreation.
Mr Wotton added: “Thanks to efforts to improve the habitat, combined with significant funding from two projects under the European Union Life Program, the bittern was saved, and we’re delighted that its success keeps going from strength to strength.”